KARINE POLWART TRAD TALK KEYNOTE SPEECH SCOTTISH STORYTELLING CENTRE MARCH 24, 2012 I spent much of the last ten days freaking out over whether I had the time and wit to put together my first ever Powerpoint presentation; because it is of course utter madness to give a speech at a conference like this without a vast array of audio-‐visuals to support what you have to say; because we know that in 21st century culture in Scotland, nobody has twenty minutes worth of concentration to listen to one single human voice exploring a few ideas and questions without the help of a few bullet points and some 3-‐D automated slides, and colour correction and a USB cable. We’re incapable of that! So I’m going to make the fact that there is a white screen there and that I have no Powerpoint presentation into a question that’s worth raising, and a virtue of sorts. And a cheeky way of trying to make a point. The other thing I want to say is that giving speeches is not my comfort zone or field of expertise, and there’s a point to be made out of that as well, because I think the whole big question today is the question of the bringing of the traditional arts into the cultural mainstream; and I think that quite often we get ourselves collectively in a fankle when we try to do things where we are out of our comfort zone and where we don’t have the skills and the expertise to make the most of the opportunities that are out there in the cultural mainstream. And perhaps we draw on parts of the cultural mainstream that are not sympathetic essentially to the nature of what we do. So, I guess I feel quite lucky in this room that I’m among people who know from their own intimate lives that there are certain kinds of cultural experiences that are not the norm actually, that we are privileged to have experienced, and that a lot of people never get the chance to experience. I’d like to just imagine one of those. We’re in a room of people, a room of friends and strangers, and a woman – she’s a frumpy woman, she’s a wee bit dumpy and not that prepossessing; she’s maybe sixty, and she stands up in that room of people, and unamplified and unaccompanied by any technological gimmickry, any instrumental whizzery, no make-‐up, no visible stylist around her – she stands up in a room and she sings twelve verses of a 300 year-‐old song in a language which is not English. And she silences the entire room, and moves the entire room in a way that we know about, because we’ve experienced that -‐ a tune that’s played that moves us profoundly, a song that’s sung that moves us profoundly, a story that’s told in ways that don’t, I think, bear any relation to what I think of as the cultural mainstream. So I’m going to come back to this vision of this woman, this unprepossessing woman, a wee bit later, and say a little bit more about it.
But I think that’s an important starting point, that our traditional arts have evolved in intimate settings with very little to support them. With a white screen, essentially, to support them. In the company of otherpeople, real people, in real physical spaces, and I think that’s important when we think about how what we do might translate to other communities and other kinds of spaces, whether they’re real or virtual. I thought, since I’m a singer and that’s one thing I do feel comfortable about doing, I’d like you to, if you would, sing a little, tiny bit with me. I’ve a point to make about this, but this is a song, I’ll sing just a verse and a chorus of this song. It’s not a song I’ve ever led before, or would ever have any occasion to lead. It’s a song I’ve sung along with other people dozens of times, at the Royal Oak for many years at half past twelve on a night when people are totally steamin. This is precisely the kind of song that would get the entire pub singing. And if you know it I’d be very grateful if you’d join in with me and then I’ll say a little about why I want you to sing this song. [Sings] Twa recrutin sergeants cam fae the Black Watch To mercats and fairs some recruits for to catch But aa that they listed was forty and twa Enlist my bonnie laddie and come awa And it’s over the mountain and over the main through Gibraltar to France and Spain Wi a feather to your bunnet and kilt abune your knee Enlist my bonnie laddie and come awa wi me. So ‘the Twa Recruitin Sergeants’ – it’s precisely the kind of song that like I say, it gets a room full of people going good gusto, full pelt, four to the floor, hammered late at night. Good gusto song. And any song o my mind that gets a room full of people singing has got great merits purely for that reason alone. Now it’s the kind of song, like many traditional songs, that actually leaves me emotionally cold. I never felt any engagement with the subject matter of the song. And in fact I never felt ever any engagement with anyone singing it with the words of the song until a pivotal moment four years ago, which actually took place outside the walls of our little scene. It was in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Gregory Burke’s ‘Black Watch’ play, which has been the most influential Scottish theatre production, certainly of the last ten years. Critically lauded, sold out across the country, an audience that’s not your typical theatre audience, set in places that are not your typical theatre venues. Now there are many great aspects about the play: it’s beautifully scripted, it’s based on interviews with Scottish soldiers who had served in Iraq. The premise for it is a pool-‐room in Fife, where the squaddies are recollecting their experience of being in Iraq. So it deals with a contemporary issue that is relevant to our society today. It’s beautifully choreographed, beautifully set, beautifully lit. But the most powerful thing of all about the whole production is the music.
And the music drew from popular, from jazz, from classical traditions, but at the core of it was traditional music. Without the traditional music that was in that play, the play wouldn’t have had even a fraction of the power that it did. And the three core songs in it are ‘The Twa Recruitin Sergeants’, ‘The Gallant Forty Twa’ and ‘The Forfar Sodger’ all songs I’ve heard. I’ve heard them played as dance songs – with people dancing so that you’re not engaging with the songs. I’ve heard them sung with great gusto in pubs. But I’d never, until I saw that play, heard them sung in a way that made me cry. And the setting of the songs, and the context of the story of the play, watching someone dressed in uniform sing ‘The Twa Recruitin Sergeants’ was absolutely devastating. And I wanted to talk about that because when we choose our models from the cultural mainstream, the ones we want to aspire to, I think we should choose them very carefully. I think right now the most vibrant and energetic part of our cultural scene, the one that has the most relevance, and the most innovative in the way that it does its thing, is the National Theatre of Scotland, and I think it provides an excellent model of how to make challenging, independent art. But also how to take what we do, and actually from an outsider’s eye -‐ Davie Anderson, who was the musical director of that piece – to see something in it that sometimes we can’t even see ourselves. I think we have a responsibility as an arts community to take a little bit of a step back sometimes, and perhaps take responsibility for the fact that part of the reason some people are turned off by what we do is that we don’t make even a fraction of the best possible use or intent out of what we have at our disposal. We sing songs like we don’t care. We play tunes like we’ve forgotten where they come from, and our music is there to really not engage us on a deep, emotional level. And I think that’s a pity and a missed opportunity, because actually I think what brings us all to this arts community is usually profound moments in our lives where we’ve been with other people, heard someone sing something, been at a dance, and just been blown away by a feeling of being part of something, a feeling of being moved by something that’s bigger than ourselves. I think it’s very easy for us to forget how to do that, and sometimes we could do with taking lessons from other people. So I mentioned the National Theatre of Scotland. Interesting also because there are at least two other productions I can think of in the National Theatre that have had traditional music at their core. ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’ showed at the Ghillie Dhu in the west end of Edinburgh last year. If you’ve not seen it, the premise for it is a fictional folklore conference at a hotel in Kelso, and the lead character, Prudencia Hart, has clearly taken some style advice from Margaret Bennett. The whole of the first act of the play is written in ballad metre, and the playwright, David Greig, who’s the foremost playwright of our contemporary Scottish theatre scene, clearly has an intimate understanding of Scottish traditional song and Scottish traditional music and knows how to use it, both for comic effect, and to raise deep, metaphysical issues, and issues about the way that our society works.
So I think there are exciting and beautiful and relevant uses of our music that have nothing to do with us actually, so part of what I want to say is that the whole issue of bringing traditional music into the cultural mainstream is not our sole responsibility. We have a responsibility to reach out to people in other art forms as well, and collaborate with them, and use their skills, and the way that they contextualise and set their stories for our benefit as well. So theatre is one aspect of that. I’m going to be a little bit scattergun. I don’t give speeches so all I’m doing is homing in on a few different areas if that’s OK, and raising some questions that are in my head about things. So the cultural mainstream – there’s a whole bunch of ways you could look at that. I’m going to zone in on just two or three other aspects. Radio is a medium that we feel comfortable with, because essentially what we do is to be listened to, and even if you can’t see anything you can hear our songs, hear our songs, hear our stories, so radio seems like it would be a medium that would suit us very well for getting our stuff out to the wider world. I was up in arms recently about BBC Radio Scotland’s decision to axe Mary Ann Kennedy’s ‘Global Gathering’ show. It’s a show that I enjoy personally, I think the music is excellent, I think it did an important service in placing the best of Scottish roots and traditional music in a broad, international context of the best of music from elsewhere. And it also did a great job of contextualising that music. Mary Ann Kennedy is a knowledgeable journalist, a musician herself, so it was an intelligent and enjoyable programme, and I think it’s a pity that it’s gone. Now I think we’ve been very good at defending our patch as traditional musicians or traditional artists whenever we’re seen to be under threat. But I’ve been thinking over the past month about that decision, and about the more general problems that there are with BBC Radio Scotland as a broadcaster that affect us. And they don’t just affect us. To me the biggest danger with the way that things are going with Radio Scotland right now is that they have made a policy decision to remove music altogether from the daytime scheduling. So not just traditional music, but all music is no longer considered culturally distinctive enough to have on our airwaves in the daytime hours. Now I think that’s a travesty, and I think it’s something we should be joining with other niches and genres of music to protest about. The reality of the situation now is that music on Radio Scotland will be confined to niche music slots in the evenings. There will be a trad slot, there will be a jazz slot, there will be a classical slot as there is, but there’ll be nothing else, there’ll be no possibility of tuning in and hearing all that stuff against each other, or hear things by accident. It’ll purely be, you know your niche music programme’s on and that’s what you like and you’ll tune in and you’ll get what you’re after. But you won’t get anything you didn’t ask for. Not only is that a pity, I don’t think it bears any relation at all to how I understand the contemporary Scottish music scene. What I love about the contemporary Scottish music scene is the way that the genre barriers are fluid, and the way that musicians and artists collaborate and communicate across those barriers.
I think traditional music has played an enormous role in breaking down the barriers between musicians of different genres, and I think our festivals have helped to breed a mind-‐set that is essentially collaborative and essentially community-‐based. And I think it’s a pity that our national radio station is going to be completely unable to represent the reality of that. I think though that we also need to think tactically about how, given that that is the situation, how do we make best use of this talk radio that Radio Scotland is going to become. One thing we don’t do nearly enough, or that has been sidelined, is make use of the documentary format as a way of getting people interested in what we do. Because documentaries are all about telling stories, and this is essentially what we are about. In some ways it might be a more sympathetic way, both on radio and television, of making sense of what we do in the traditional arts scene. Because hearing a song with no context, where you’ve no idea what it’s about, and no reference to anything, is a totally different way of hearing a song from hearing it in the place where it was born, amongst people who understand how it connects with other aspects of their life. Documentary provides an opportunity to view our music in a more meaningful way. Above all else the way that we will bring traditional arts and traditional music into the cultural mainstream is by maximising the possible number of opportunities that people have to be blown away by something. We don’t need to convince people in abstract that the traditional music or arts scene is important. Most people, they don’t care, they don’t even think about things in terms of scenes. They just think about individual experience where they’ve heard something and it’s moved them profoundly. They care about that song, or the dance that they danced at their wedding, or that tune that was played as the first wedding waltz. And they don’t need to care about anything else but those things for ever more will have meaning for people. So it’s all about making situations where people can attach themselves to what it is that we do. There are opportunities on Radio Scotland. There’s an afternoon slot right now that’s used for documentary. I think we need to engage more with people that have other skills. We’re fortunate in our community that there are many people with radio broadcasting skills. We’ve kind of made a virtue out of the fact that many of us who have great knowledge of music and traditional arts have chosen radio as a thing we want to be better at, so actually we punch above our weight, I think, in the radio sector potentially. But we need to make the best of those opportunities and not just take on a defeatist attitude, and rue the things that are lost, and not look at the things we can exploit. I’ll go on to TV. In terms of the cultural mainstream, opportunities to represent traditional arts or traditional music on TV or on film is like the Holy Grail of all things. It’s the medium above all that people consume in their homes on an every day basis, so it’s the one that we’re hankering after most of all. There are a few problems with some of the ways that we’ve tried to tap into TV as a medium. This whole image of this woman standing in the room, the intimacy of that, the
stripped down nature of that, removes ourselves a little too far away from the power that that can have. Music on television – and I’m focusing on music because music is my chief interest and the thing I know about, or have anything to say about – music on TV is as a general rule music devoid of any context. Performers that you see on TV are not required to be humans. They’re required to stand up and sing. We don’t need to hear anything about what they’re singing, we don’t need to know anything about what they’re doing or what motivates them, except insofar as we can make those people into celebrities. And then we want to know all kinds of extraneous stuff that has nothing to do with the content of what they’re singing or playing on TV. To some extent we’ve chased the goal of trying to take some of our music, or certain parts of our musical world, and put them into television and aspire to those high-‐gloss production values, by painting our artists and musicians and singers and expecting them to be comfortable in an environment that is essentially not comfortable. And I say that from personal experience. I’ve been involved in – every year when the Hogmanay show comes around for example on TV, there’s an annual grump immediately after Hogmanay when people complain ‘Well, that was shit again, wasn’t it? It was shit music, and they all looked really grumpy and uncomfortable, it was just like the lowest common denominator.’ Well here’s a fact. It really is the most uncomfortable situation to be in. Quite often it’s literally cold, you’re not expected to communicate with your audience in any natural way possible. As a scene, as artists and singers and storytellers and musicians we are natural conversationalists. It’s not an extraneous, bonus, added part of what we do. It’s essential to what we do that we talk to people, and we want to engage with them directly. And having someone stick a camera in your face couldn’t be further from the reality of what most people know how to do. So chasing that kind of model of presenting our music on TV is only going to work for an exceptionally tiny number of naturally photogenic and naturally confident individuals. And it won’t work for the rest of us who are too frumpy, or too old, or too wrinkly, or too nervous in that situation to actually do the thing that we do perfectly well and beautifully in situations much more like this or in living rooms or in kitchens or in village halls or wherever else it is that we do it. So we need to find ways to exploit that medium that are a little more sympathetic to the nature of what we do. And again – documentary. We live in a society where the reality TV show and the documentary are no longer little niche things that you can put on at ten to eleven at night, or in the middle of the night like the Open University 1970s kind of programmes. They are our main, most popular programmes on television, and they’re about ordinary people. We have this fascination in our contemporary culture with extraordinary ordinariness. And actually, in a way, that’s what our whole scene is about. Again we should think a little more tactically about how to collaborate with people who have those skills, who can tell our story better and contextualise our music in a way that actually gives it meaning and isn’t just something else that you gloss over in
between Graham Norton interviewing this Hollywood star or that Hollywood star. Because that’s really not what our music or our arts are about. Two programmes that I think have been significant. This woman, this woman who stood up and sang unaccompanied and unamplified was a pivotal TV moment in the past few years, which had nothing to do with our scene at all, and that was a woman from Bathgate, Susan Boyle standing up and blowing away a room of people. Now you could say that’s got nothing at all to do with what we’re about. But actually it taps into – there’s a deep-‐seated need amongst people to hear people that you wouldn’t expect, that have not been pre-‐packaged through theatre school and all the rest of it, stand up and do beautiful things and move people profoundly. And whether you like her singing or not, she moved an entire nation of people. Now, I think moving people is essentially what we do, and we just need to look at the best way to get that sentiment and that power, that visceral power that we have, and those skills that we have across in all of those media. One very, very last thing! It’s the issue of national identity. We need to be very careful. We sometimes try to hog the whole issue of Scottish culture and Scottish music. Occasionally we are guilty of hogging that for ourselves, and just overstepping the line ever so slightly by claiming to be Scottish music and culture. I’ve talked about the National Theatre of Scotland. I think we have great kindred spirit with the independent music scene in Scotland. Many of their people sing in their own vernacular and accents. They collaborate in communities of musicians that are very much like our own. I’d like us to find the right models within our cultural mainstream to aspire to, and stop chasing the ones that actually are doing us no service at all. Like I said before, the chief thing we need to do is maximise the opportunities to make people feel deeply moved by our songs, our stories. On an individual basis all we have to do is care about this song in that setting. And I still find it fascinating that every single wedding and funeral I’ve been at in my lifetime has featured either a ceilidh band, a song of Robert Burns, and these are not people who would identify themselves with the traditional music scene. My family is not a folkie family, but every single family funeral or funeral of a friend has featured a song that is the song that meant the most to that person and to that family. And we have those songs in spades, and we have those tunes in spades, and I just think we need to be very careful of what it is that we’re chasing when we talk about bringing ourselves into the cultural mainstream. To a large extent we’re in it enough. We don’t need to go any further. Maybe we should hang on to a little bit of our independence, and just think always about meaning, and never lose the meaning of what it is that we do.